The Mundane and the Holy: Libby Whittall Catling’s life on the land

When a friend mentioned that Libby Catling had published a book, I thought to myself: now there’s a story! Libby Whittall Catling lived with a wolf hunter in a cabin on the remote East Arm of Great Slave Lake. That’s really all I needed to know to pique my interest.

Unfortunately, The Mundane and the Holy is not a full-fledged memoir but a collection of the columns she published in News/North between 2012 and 2016.


I scoured them, searching for the full story: how did she meet this guy? What’s he like? What was she doing before? Did she, like, say yes right away to this remote living idea, or was it a gradual thing?  

God I’m nosy.

Alas, these details don’t really emerge. Instead we get Whittall Catling’s collected musings, published straight from the paper, typos and all (I mean to say that all papers have typos, not just News/North, right? Bruce: right??)

But I stayed up kind of late reading them.

In one column, Whittall Catling watches her husband and son-in-law hunt eight wolves on the lake outside her front window. In another, she encounters a herd of muskox. Next she’s at the scene of the 2014 wildfire that destroyed the Olesen homestead on the (relatively) nearby Hoarfrost River.

They get visitors. Whittall Catling doesn’t dish much about these, or speculate on their motives, but the cast of characters is still interesting: a Norwegian canoeist, visitors to the nearby fishing lodge, the Olesen family.

Whittall Catling also writes about getting lonely, doing nothing, spending too much time on Facebook and the phenomenon of getting “bushed.” She’s a slightly obsessive gardener (she uses the square foot gardening method, which is nerdy and technical — both points in favour). In one article, she roams around Folk on the Rocks trying to find some bottled water. She’s been away and doesn’t know when or why single-use plastic water bottles became villains.

About that wolf hunter, I did get some information. His dad worked for an Environment Canada weather station near the homestead where he later spent most of his life. He estimates he’s killed about 3,400 animals in his lifetime. Midway through the book, we learn he has a long-lost brother he never knew about who comes to visit. We also learn that Whittall Catling spent some time in Inuvik, and also Newfoundland. “I don’t think I have ever been in a social situation where I have felt comfortable,” she writes.

By now I’m dying to know the most basic things. What’s the cabin like? Who built it? What about this guest house she mentions? Who are these house sitters, and how can I get on that list? Photos answer some of these questions but not all.

In December of 2013, Whittall Catling’s mother-in-law moves in for the winter. “As you can imagine, this situation is one that would tax the most stalwart,” she writes. But that’s all she writes, until a few pages later they’re moving the mother-in-law to a nursing home in B.C.

Libby Whittall Catling is no Karl Ove Knausgaard. She refuses to cross the bar of common decency. But this is still an absorbing and reflective book about a very distant corner of the N.W.T.

The Mundane and the Holy: Select Columns from The Sum of All Our Parts, News/North 2012–2016
By Libby Whittall Catling
World Peace Dog Publishing 2018

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